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Painting at Lascaux

After writing Sunday’s post I kept being nagged by this additional passage from Denis Dutton‘s New York Times op ed piece:

One trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the pleasure we take in admiring skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall — where now and again the Homo erectus hairs stand up on the backs of our necks — human beings have a permanent, innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts.

We ought, then, to stop kidding ourselves that painstakingly developed artistic technique is passé, a value left over from our grandparents’ culture…The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works…

Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity…

But that doesn’t mean we need to worry about the future of art. There are plenty of prodigious artists at work in every medium, ready to wow us with surprising skills.


Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled 7-95, 1997, oil on linen on panel, 16×20”. (Image courtesy of Max Protetch Gallery)

My two major sage sources over the last few months have been Philip Guston and Thomas Nozkowski. Both artists are recognized for being extremely intelligent and cerebral; yet the power of their work is visceral and immediate. For me it is both retinal and it is somatic: My eye is in completely, as is my body.

For what I do and the way I work, Guston and Nozkowski are the best at articulating what easily falls into the inchoate and ill-defined. And even after repeated reading, their insights feel authentic and fresh. Given the self-conscious preenings that are so ubiquitous, I believe it is wise to hold on fast when you find something that sidesteps all the claptrap and digs right into the soil beneath your toes.

From an interview by John Yau with Nozkowski published in the Brooklyn Rail in 2010:

Rail: It interests me that these paintings go through a lot of changes, and that a lot of work goes into them, but you don’t want to show that.

Nozkowski: Well, I come from a working class background and I know too much about work to think that there is anything inherently good about it. I no longer have to prove to my parents that I’m doing real, honest work. I don’t think it’s essential to show the signs of work, to demonstrate the effort involved in making something. I mean, making something physically is not the most interesting part of making art. A letterpress book isn’t smarter than a Xeroxed one. Oil painting always shows its history anyway. You can’t ever erase something; you can’t get rid of it. It will affect everything that’s put on top of it, whether you’ve peeled most of the paint away or rubbed it down into a fine veil of color.

Rail: I feel like it’s part of what happened, but you don’t fetishize process.

Nozkowski: That’s definitely true. However, if you look at the surfaces of my paintings, you’ll see that the “signs of work” aren’t only shown by the facture. More often you can see that in the color. Oil paint is translucent, often transparent, and seldom completely opaque. You mix it, beat it, and layer it. It is never pure and—a commonplace—it is always seen in context, changed and charged by its size, position, and relationships with other colors. It is slippery stuff, the most elusive part of painting. I like it best in excess, when it feels like it is about to go out of control. I don’t want to create the idea that I have some singular idea of specific colors from the start of a painting. These come out of the process, trying to correct things and make it all add up. You know, you put something down and it’s not right, you do the next thing and you try again to fix it. I’ve talked about how I like painting best when it turns a little homely, turns away from the grandiose and opts for simple desire. To really want to possess something and to be willing to do anything to get it will take you pretty far. That’s the reason so much outsider painting looks so great.

Some great phrases in this conversation: not fetishizing the process, liking it best in excess and when it feels like it is about to go out of control, when it turns a little homely, when it turns away from grandiose and opts for simple desire. My kind of language and my kind of experience.

Denis Dutton, the recently deceased author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times a few years ago in response to the auctioning of one of Damien Hirst‘s infamous medicine cabinets:

The pricey medicine cabinet belongs to a tradition of conceptual art: works we admire not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept. Mr. Hirst has a talent for coming up with concepts that capture the attention of the art market, putting him in the company of other big names who have now and again moved away from making art with their own hands: Jeff Koons, for example, who has put vacuum cleaners into Plexiglas cases and commissioned an Italian porcelain manufacturer to make a cheesy gold and white sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp. Mr. Koons need not touch the art his contractors produce; the ideas are his, and that’s enough.

Sophisticated gallery owners or curators normally respond with withering condescension to worries about the lack of craftsmanship in contemporary art. Art has moved on, I’ve heard it argued, since Victorian times, when “she’d painted every hair” was ordinary aesthetic praise. What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.

Dutton uses the rest of his piece to demonstrate that objects that are well crafted, made by hand (in the most positive sense), and beautiful have always played a role in our species’ history, a point of view expounded in more detail in his last book.

The importance and role of craft and handmadeness are on my mind these last few weeks after having viewed the final exhibits for three different MFA programs. Based on the work featured in these three shows, it is clear to me that each program has a tacit—or in some cases, explicit— attitude about the importance of craftsmanship in contemporary art.

Invoking the Roberta Smith taste test* (my personal version of Occam‘s razor for navigating the world of art) I give a high five to Rhode Island School of Design. Yes it is a great art school with extraordinary resources and easy access to different disciplines and programs. But respect for the hand and the craft is evident even when the work is taking a counter position. A RISD value, “to encourage generative thinking and making” is clearly evident in this show.

Beyond the sprawling MFA exhibit however is additional evidence of how the school views handmadeness. Quietly on display in RISD’s spectacular library (situated inside a massive bank building brilliantly repurposed by Office dA) is an exhibit of handmade books by the students of Jan Baker. Baker has been teaching a book making class for 25 years and her collection of student samples is close to 500. Baker has chosen 200 and painstakingly created a “displayscapes,” lovingly populating the museum cases with these exquisitely crafted works. Arranged by themes—story telling, travel, animals, food, alphabets for example—each display cabinet invites your eye to explore a miniature world of artistic mastery. Baker has color coded each piece by the decade in which it was done, pointing out that much of the meticulous cutwork had to be done by hand. “These older works were made long before we had a laser cutter.” I could have spent hours excavating inside each one.

Displaying artist books has been frustrating curators for a long time, and Baker is equally stymied by how to share objects that are designed to be held in the hand, paged through slowly and carefully. Her kimono-like styling—a page open here, a pop up offered there—is more enticing than most artist book shows I have seen. But the longing to jimmy the glass and reach in to hold these gems is constant.

The show is up through July. The displays are on several levels, so be sure to visit all of them, including the window box in the Special Collections wing. This is an unforgettable exhibit.

*The Roberta Smith Taste Test:
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.

Detail view of David’s Death of Marat. Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts. The background was intentionally unfinished.

In the preface to a book of poetry by Dylan Thomas, the poet said he was going to publish this group of poems so he would have to quit futzing with them. Once in print, he would be forced to treat them as finished.

Paul Valery had another take on completion: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

James Elkins‘ series of art posts for the Huffington Post last year included one article that explored the question, How can you know when a painting is finished?

This used to be a simple problem: when the artist had filled in the blanks, she was done. Over the past two hundred years it has become a very difficult question. Artists, critics, and scholars debate it endlessly. It’s one of the mainstays of conversation in artists’ studios. There is a lot of talk about intuition: artists say, “I just work until it feels right,” or “I’m not sure if it’s finished, but I am slowly getting the sense that it might be.” But feelings can be elusive. Many painters mull over this problem for years on end. It’s an unending source of fascination.

Elkins looks through the history of art to identify three kinds of unfinished paintings: the simply abandoned, non finito (where the artist deliberately stopped working before the painting was finished in order to create an effect), and the perpetually unfinished painting that “cannot be finished because it is infinite, because the artist is in the grip of a compulsion.” Elkins uses the famous painting by David of the death of Marat as an example of non finito. The unfinished background speaks to Marat’s untimely death and his unfinished life.

Thomas Nozkowski‘s take on that question (from an interview with Francine Prose) is a simple one:

To put it as simply as possible—and this is a simple answer, not a total answer—I know when a painting’s finished when I understand why I wanted to do it in the first place. When it becomes clear, there is this energized space, there is this color, there is something interesting to me.

“When it becomes clear, there is this energized space, there is this color, there is something interesting to me.” I know exactly what he means. It’s a subtle thing, and it is intuitive. But I know that moment. I think most artists do.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (7-72), 1995, Oil on linen on panel, 40.6 x 50.8 cm, Max Protecht Collection, © Thomas Nozkowski / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.

Some people have moderation built in, like a personality module fully loaded from birth. Those are the lucky souls who can sit in front of a bowl of chocolate covered raisins and just take one. I’m not that person. I have a proclivity for excess. Curiosities, ideas, themes come in, take over all the airwaves and monopolize my thinking for any given period of time.

This post is more about my newfound fascination with the works and the words of Thomas Nozkowski (which began with yesterday’s post.) The more I read the more sure I am he is talking to me, for me, with me, in me.

This excerpt is from artonpaper’s Letters to a Young Artist. Nozkowksi starts off with his signature self-effacing grace:

Isn’t the voice of geezerdom, with its war stories and self-regard, the last thing a young artist wants to hear? Who can stand one more story about My First Loft in SoHo, you know, the one that rented for $100 a month? Or how about The Day I Met Duchamp, How I Stretch My Canvases, The Beautiful Blonde on the Train to Paris? Isn’t it high time the old folks shuffled off and room was made for the new ideas and language of the young? What can I possibly say that might be of interest to a cool kid like you? My generation, well, we are just in your way — and we know it, too. The reality, as usual, is all mixed up. It is good to be reminded of the commonalities of our experience, that we have brothers and sisters — even parents and children — and that we are not alone; still, it’s a bore to be buttonholed by some garrulous old uncle who really just wants to brag about his own successes.

But Nozkowski is no garrulous old uncle. His simple wisdom is straight up and right on:

For myself I prefer careers that last thirty years to those that last thirty months, but there is no reason to believe there is always more integrity to one pattern than the other. Let’s face it, it’s not like this is something that is under our control. Not really. Much of the time, if an artist is any good, she is developing a way of understanding the spirit and the stuff of the world that is bound to go beyond the way just about everyone else sees and thinks about it, at least for a while. We are not ignored for malicious reasons, alas. Recognition, when it comes, sometimes can seem like a misunderstanding. The real life of the artist is solitary.

The central fact of artists’ lives — the part that non-artists never seem to quite understand — is the loneliness of the studio. Before our runs are over we will have spent more time –thousands upon thousands of hours — alone, just staring at these things we make. This part of our experience must be factored in to every idea about artists’ lives if you want to understand them. More artists stop working because of this loneliness than for any other reason.

If there is one essential survival skill that you must learn, it is how to sustain yourself and your work over the years. There is really only one way to do this, and that is by loving what you do, being fascinated by your work, and by being obsessed with making art. You will get in trouble if you need the approval of others to keep your work moving forward. After all these years, the one essential element in my practice, the one thing I am sure of is that I need to be interested in and happy about what I am doing in the studio.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (7-107, LA III), 1998, oil on linen on panel, 22×28” (Photo: BOMB Magazine)

Thomas Nozkowski is an artist I follow and have been interested in for some time. But I began diggging deeper into his work and his point of view after reading the review of his show at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery by his long time friend John Yau, A Truly Subversive Artist Is Not Necessarily Someone Who Is Theatrical or Gimmicky. (That title alone is worth further exploration.)

And now I am even more beguiled and fascinated. One of my best finds was an interview in BOMB Magazine between Nozkowski and the writer Francine Prose. These two intelligent, thoughtful artists share a conversation about art and art making that is refreshingly authentic, generous and “art world pretension”-free. Nozkowski is articulate about things that are often glossed over or flattened down to the usual clichés. His words have depth, amplitude, and the evidence of having thought through these issues for a long period of time.

As Prose states in her introduction, she was eager to interview Tom Nozkowski so that she might finally begin to understand what makes his paintings “so beautiful, mysterious, surprising and unique, so simultaneously and paradoxically whimsical and haunting.” The process of speaking with him only intensified and deepened the mystery of his work for her, the finest compliment IMHO. (I also admire Prose for saying this to Nozkowski about art reportage: “I read all those articles and essays that critics have written about you, and I have to tell you I didn’t understand a single word. It made me realize that the reason I started writing art criticism was because I couldn’t understand it.”)

One of the first topics they discuss is about Nozkowski’s long passion for the painting by Pisanello, Legend of St. Eustache. He remembered first seeing the painting in London many years ago and being deeply moved by it:

TN: I don’t know how to describe the feeling, but it was as if I knew why every stroke was made. Every color, every shape. I thought it profoundly moving…I was trying to find out why those elements work.

FP: So did you figure it out?

TN: No, not in specifics. I mean, if you could figure it out, it would lose a lot of its magic. You’d possess it too closely. What I did come to understand was the possibility of working out of a feeling rather than a formal direction. There are a few very modest structural reasons for any of the forms and colors in that particular painting being where they are. They seem inevitable for another reason…

There are paintings that speak directly and privately to you. And it has to do with who you are. As a painter, I’m interested in painterly solutions, things that painters do… I think painters go to museums with different agendas and goals. You go to find solutions for your own problems and your own aspirations.

Pisanello’s Legend of St. Eustache

In another exchange about the more general experience of making art:

FP: Do you have any sense of what would be the ideal response to one of your paintings?

TN: If someone was able to look at a painting of mine for a period of time, to go with it and spin out some kind of logical—for lack of a better word—story from it, I don’t expect much more than that. The central fact of our lives, of any artist’s life, are the thousands upon thousands of hours we spend alone staring at these damn things, thinking about them. We sit there, and these things just go on, and on, and on. Everything in the world ties into them, everything that’s crossed your mind while you’re working on it. And, if somebody could just get a sense of that fullness in a work of art, it’s working, you’re on the right track. Ultimately, the one thing that a work of art is about, is the fact that a human being did it. That’s what’s extraordinary, and what’s wonderful.

FP: But Tom, you can look at really crappy art and think: A human being did that, too.

TN: Art objects are gifts. Sometimes you get a lousy gift, and sometimes you get a great gift. The more complex and the more interesting the art is, the more it gives you.

More to come on this.

Fragment of “Gareska”, part of a recent painting series

Most of us know that feeling of rubberbanding: the rapidity with which you can move from loving what you are doing to finding it completely unacceptable. The writer Anne Lamott (who has written in depth about writing itself in books like Bird by Bird) advises her Twitter followers to write badly, and to do it every day. This recent tweet is typical of her advice: “The writer’s life is a decison to write badly, study greatness, find out about life. It’s a difficult blessing, hard for all of us.”

Yes to that. So here’s a few reminders about how much we don’t understand. Which, when you are questioning what it is you do understand, can bring some sense of solace.

What we overlook is that underneath the ground of our beliefs, opinions, and concepts is a boundless sea of uncertainty. The concepts we cling to are like tiny boats tossed about in the middle of the vast ocean. We stand on our beliefs and ideas thinking they’re solid, but in fact, they (and we) are on shifting seas.

Steve Hagen

I always work out of uncertainty but when a painting’s finished it becomes a fixed idea, apparently a final statement. In time though, uncertainty returns… your thought process goes on.

Georg Baselitz

An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.

Djuna Barnes

When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others.

Bertrand Russell

William Powhida, “A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System” (Photo courtesy of Felix Salmon)

The artisphere has been awash these last few weeks with opinions about art fairs, the brazen commercialization of fine art, changes in powerbrokering, and what’s hot. These topics are perennials that come and go like the cold virus that takes up residence in your body before moving on to the next vulnerable human being. They are fast moving and are never conquered or solved.

So as tiresome as some of these issues may be, I still feel an obligation (to what I am not sure) to take some space here to put a few of these topics into a more personal context.

Here are excerpts from two writers whose thoughtful insights spoke to me. The first is artist and writer Thomas Micchelli, writing for Hyperallergic:

Like it or not, we have an official visual culture, and that culture is determined by an entrenched hierarchy. This is no different from any other historical era, though the hierarchy has evolved from emperors, popes, cardinals and kings to museum directors, biennial curators, collectors, gallery owners and select members of the media.

And this official culture is no less fallible than the one that once considered Guido Reni (1575–1642, aka “The Divine Guido”) to be the greatest of all Italian artists.

But it can also bring to the fore the most noteworthy artists of our time. I first saw the work of Regina José Galindo in the Venice Biennale of 2005, El Anatsui in the Biennale of 2007, and Adrián Villar Rojas in this year’s Triennial at the New Museum.

These artists cannot remotely be considered “worker bees in an art-industrial hive.” Rather, their art reflects Robert Henri’s sentiment from The Art Spirit (1923):

I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.

And so does, oddly enough, the work of the artists I know and care about.

These artists are by and large laboring in the shadow of official culture. Of course they would like to make a living from their art — who wouldn’t? But they see the act of making as the primary goal. And their choice to live an artist’s life is not subject to the whim of the hierarchy or the market.

This is so in line with my way of seeing things.

And from John Yau, also writing for Hyperallergic, some timely comments while reviewing Dana Schutz’s recent show of paintings in New York:

Dana Schutz, who is in her mid-30s, belongs to the generation of artists who grew up in an epoch where painting was routinely thought of as a dead practice. One couldn’t just be a painter, because doing so would be to enter a dusty domain crammed with empty signifiers. It would mean you were doing something that was obsolete (and reviled) — like speaking Latin to the drugstore cashier. The lines were pretty clear: dumb people became painters; smart people became conceptual artists who painted only when and if the subject called for it. This viewpoint might have started out as speculation, but now it’s a stupid and persistent prejudice.

Instead of accommodating herself, like a good student, to the pressures of the historical moment, Schutz turned the tables. If painting was no longer possible, then what would it mean to depict the impossible in bold colors and clear forms?

I have shared this anecdote on Slow Muse before but it is particularly apropos at this point in time: A young graduate art student tearfully tells her advisor that her classmates are mocking her because all she wants to do is paint. Her advisor responds with this advice, “Art has a history of being subversive. Seems to me the most subversive thing you could be doing right now is to paint.”

Whether your making is in the form of painting or something else, the Micchelli litmus test is a useful tool: Being someone who sees the act of making as the primary goal. That, and the choice to live an artist’s life that is not subject to the whim of the hierarchy, the market, the art fairs, or the latest art school fad.

Hot Country, by Elmer Schooley

I was introduced to the work of Elmer Schooley (1916-2007) through my friend Colleen Burke. Colleen has a legendary nose for great art, and she came to know Elmer (known to his friends as “Skinny”) after becoming a big fan of his work. We took a trip together to Santa Fe back in the 1990s, and going to see his work in the flesh at the Munson Gallery was one of the first things I did.

Schooley is best described as a landscape painter, but his surfaces are a feast of patterning, layering and meticulous micro imaging. His work spoke to me with a magical force similar to the way I experienced early examples of Aboriginal art (the work of Johnny Tjupurrula Warangkula for example)—it references the land and topology, but it also calls to the mind to keep burrowing, to dig deeper into an alternate reality. I took a close up of one of his paintings and have had that image on my studio wall for 20 years. It never stops speaking to me.

There isn’t much available on Schooley these days. (That puts him on my list of noncanonicals, right near the top. More about that ongoing list here.) But in looking for more information about him online I did find an exquisitely written tribute to him by Stephanie Grill. An art historian by training, Grill has assembled a number of her essays on her site, ArtScribe.

Schooley often works on several paintings at the same time, completing only a few each year. Schooley avoids what he calls the “dreadful flourish of the brush,” developing a system of rollers and sponges to apply the paint. “The brush is the least of my weapons.” He meticulously works with pure oil paint to build a surface. Richly textured with varying strokes of paint, his canvases have the quality of natural processes, like the dense undergrowth of a forest. Considering himself a craftsman, he pursues a goal of a “good solid unity” as he enters into the web of paint marks.

Living in chaotic times, Schooley reminds us that there is an order not of our making. Observe water spinning as it goes down the drain, and you see the spiraling form of galaxies. The capillary trees of In The Gloaming are consistent with the organization of our blood vessels. Although his paintings may arouse a feeling of spirituality, he claims to be a “carnal animal,” for truly he experiences the wonder of this planet through his keen senses. “Nature is my god,” he states plainly.

If you have any stories about him, please pass them along to me. I am always interested in knowing more about Skinny.

In the Gloaming

My Golden Age

Winter Light

Never Seek to Tell My Love

Donna Summer, RIP

Donna Summer is gone. The queen of disco will never be forgotten by anybody who was alive in the 70’s. Come on. Admit it. We all danced wildly to her music. And it was fun.

Disco doesn’t make it onto any of my playlists these days. But Summer is the sine qua non of an entire musical era that came and then went. Hearing tributes to her music today were more nostalgic than inspiring.

But nostalgia is not nothing. It is a something. That longing for what once was is often silenced by those of us educated to the importance of dismissing sentimental proclivities. We have been trained to regard those feelings with suspicion, like a dirty little secret.

An article in the New Yorker last fall included a review of James Wolcott‘s memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York. That longing for another world is addressed in a colorful passage that also references the film criticism of the great Pauline Kael:

Wolcott has essentially produced a book-length complaint that the world is not the way it used to be. He wants readers to share his yearning for a time that started well before “the gold medallions and furry testicles of disco descended” (one of several baffling bon mots Wolcott dangles before his readers). This nostalgia-mongering is the opposite of what Kael stood for as a critic. “They want something that can’t come back,” she complained of people who, in the mid-seventies, clung to John Wayne’s leathery image.

The article’s author, Nathan Heller, goes on to make this point (and praise Kael):

A lot of people now—even people much younger than James Wolcott—dream of a lost moment when the opportunities were truly “hidden like Easter eggs,” when the paths were not yet mapped and overrun. How can we be expected to create properly, the thinking goes, without the tools of past success? How can we write without the old serious publications, make movies without risk-taking Hollywood producers, live without cheap urban housing, discover art without the underground, make a career without the circulation-desk jobs?

Kael’s great achievement was to fight this way of thinking, to persuade her readers that work is always done with the machinery at hand. It was, for her, a liberating insight.

And a good one to keep in mind in any age, under any circumstances.